Dead Deco showcases the responses of a wide variety of artists in our 5Qs with… interview series. Some interviews included artists dedicated to this genre exclusively, while others have been from the perspective of Day of the Dead outliers whose work seamlessly includes celebrated contributions. Though all have been informative, few present the passion for this holiday and its associated arts that Comrade’s Calacas exudes. As in his sculptures and on his blog, Comrade’s Calacas‘ love for this holiday’s traditions and art is self evident.
Dead Deco: Thank you for joining us here on 5Qs. How did you first learn about the Day of the Dead holiday?
Comrade’s Calacas: I was fortunate enough to be born and raised in the shadow of Los Angeles proper, which provided plenty of opportunities for early exposure to the trappings of Dia de los Muertos. I recall early memories of seeing papier mache’ stands in the Olvera Street Square and trips to The Folk Tree—the delta of import and muerte arts in the area, located in my hometown of Pasadena—which stoked a healthy admiration and fascination with the holiday.
However, on something of an ironic note, I didn’t become interested in the deeper artistic culture until I played a video game called Grim Fandango, back in the 1990’s. Prior to that, I’d gotten about as far as candy skulls and hammered tin tchotchkes; after seeing what designer Tim Schafer was able to accomplish by distilling his love of the muerte mythology into that medium, my mind was officially blown. The glass that I felt existed between my interest in it as an expressive artistic genre and its qualities as an indigenous celebration fell away, and I made my first sculpture just a few months later.
DD: What is your favorite Day of the Dead tradition?
CC: I’d say this is probably a bonafide “gimme,” considering my colophon, but… calacas make my creative world go ‘round. One of the things I admire most about them is their ability to elicit a number of reactions from people: in fashioning original pieces for friends, family and for commercial purposes, I’ve seen everything from tears of joy to disgusted comments about “messing with (Mexican) voodoo.” For something so innocuous, the emotional sucker-punch that this particular craft can elicit is intriguing, to say the least.
DD: How does your community respond to Day of the Dead?
CC: Seattle has a number of robust artistic traditions—our regional devotion to Native arts is really one of the most impressive things about the Pacific Northwest’s creative culture—but, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much room for the muerte arts outside of random and arbitrary associations to our hipster boutiques and local import stores. You’ll see leather-tooled candy-skull keychains at pop-shops in Ballard and plenty of alebrijes at Pike’s Market, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single local gallery or folk art shop who’s featuring the work of any local artisans for the holiday… or, sadly, who has much stated interest in doing so. Aside from an exhibition at the Seattle Center, the emphasis locally is more on selling “the exotic,” rather than just focusing on “the art,” as a self-contained entity.
DD: Do you have a particular Day of the Dead artist whose work you admire?
CC: Tamra Kohl, aka Clay Lindo. I’ve been an artist in so many mediums over the course of my life—filmmaking, academia, professional writing, game design—that I’ve practically become versed in the snobbishness and dismissive attitudes that one often experiences when they’re trying to get a foothold in some new form of cultural creativity. The fact that Tamra—who is, for my dime’s worth, the “gold standard” of contemporary calaca creation—responded with nothing but kindness and support (and has continued to do so, some four years later!) wasn’t only a welcome change of pace from that “tradition,” but was something that I was able to hinge my then-fledgling confidence on. In an arena where “paying it forward” is often less important than “stepping on someone else’s face,” that small spark of faith has truly made a profound difference.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t at least make a starry-eyed mention of Jaime Hernandez, of Love and Rockets fame. Even if he and his brother aren’t specifically oriented towards dia de los muertos art, their style is something that I find myself trying to infuse into every piece that I create; it’s one of my quiet shames that I’m unable to actually draw a straight line, so finding an illustrator whose aesthetics lend themselves to a three-dimensional art form is incredibly inspiring.
DD: Is there anything else about Day of the Dead that you would like to share?
CC: As I get older, I began to realize that so much of the art that fueled me through my twenties has started to yellow around the edges: the days of chain-smoking all-nighters spent shooting movies that nobody’s ever going to watch or ripping through an orgiastic, coffee-drenched writing marathons are well behind me, both physically and spiritually. The one exception to that trend has been my work en calaca, which has only improved, deepened and expanded as I wend my way through my thirties; it’s truly a gift that finds new ways to keep on giving on a daily basis, and—at the risk of ending this interview on a note of the unabashedly cliché—continues to strengthen the fiber of my being… one silly little skeleton at a time.
Thank you to Comrade’s Calacas for his personal insight and for his beautiful artwork, and please frequent his blog for updates on all his latest pieces and showings. In this age of injection-molded-mass-production culture, it is important to remember that individual artists also need support as they bring their visions to life one hand-crafted object at a time. Instead of buying cheap resin-products mass produced in far-away countries, seek out your local community artists. Go to the local gallery Day of the Dead art shows. Shop on Etsy.com.
Investing in artists is an investment in the future of art.